The world of pop music in 2008 needed a shakeup, and a then-unknown singer called Lady Gaga was poised to deliver. Her debut album, The Fame, achieved what Madonna did for pop in the ’80s. She created an image that was bright, bold, and shocking. (See also the meat dress she wore in 2010.) Another parallel can be found in their vocals: similar to Madonna’s chameleon-esque voice, Gaga was able to sing in a soft, girly tone for “Eh, Eh (Nothing Else I Can Say)” and a rough, deep tone for “Just Dance” and “Poker Face.”
The Fame is sprinkled with glitter (literally – in “Boys Boys Boys,” Gaga declares that her love interest “tastes just like glitter mixed with rock and roll”) and synths. It’s almost pre-packaged to play at the club.
The album’s title is fitting. In songs like “Paparazzi,” Gaga explores themes like stalking and wanting to be famous at any cost. It’s a meta perspective on the shifting media-celebrity relationship, which now seems almost quaint as social media has taken over.
The song that is probably the biggest throwback for me personally is “Just Dance.” That was at seemingly every party. “Poker Face” is another one, too, just because I think it’s the one that really launched her career. I listened to it on repeat back when it came out. It just sounded so different from anything else that was happening.
Gaga’s confidence is infectious. In every song, Gaga is the one who’s in control. She’s self-aware in her desire for popularity, and knows exactly what it will be like when she gets there. For example, in “Beautiful, Dirty, Rich”, Gaga sings about how vapid the wealthy lifestyle is, and how they wasted all their money on partying.
It’s a fascinating perspective from someone who was an outsider and is now at the top of the heap.
It’s that time of year again! Warmer weather has arrived, and with it, my summertime songs. We return to my Covers Corner feature with the version of “Surfin’ USA” that The Jesus and Mary Chain did back in 1987.
It’s classic Mary Chain, with blistering guitar and Jim Reid’s rough voice. The combo is an excellent continuation of the sound they established with their debut Psychocandy: pop music that’s layered thickly with a fuzz of feedback echoing the Kinks. Their version also sets up an intriguing contrast. A band from Scotland is singing about “Californ-i-a” and “waxing down our surfboards/can’t wait ’till June.” It’s not funny, exactly, but I love it just the same. The cover has a rebellious vibe. When Jim Reid sings, “tell the teacher we’re surfin’,” I picture a group of kids skipping class to head to the beach.
Meanwhile, the Beach Boys’ version is squeaky-clean a capella. You immediately want to jump on a surfboard yourself, or at least hang out on the sand with a radio playing. The best part, in my opinion, is towards the end with the high, ever-so-slightly nasal “yeah, everybody’s gone surfin‘” onto the fadeout. It’s youthful and sweet. The kids in this song aren’t skipping class; they’re waiting until the weekend or until the summer surf season begins.
If there’s one song that was used in seemingly every mid-’00s movie and TV montage, it would be this one. It’s just so damn catchy, what with the beat that encourages you to clap along and the nonsensical lyrics (what is a “bomdigi” anyway?). “Cobrastyle” is just this side of instrumental, so it’s handy for montages that don’t really need lyrics.
The song features Mad Cobra, a Jamaican dancehall musician. He quasi-raps over that distinctive, sliding-scale beat that kicks up at the chorus. The song is engineered by Teddybears, a Swedish group. I always thought that the Teddybears’ masks were really creepy: they’re exaggerated bears with prominent teeth. It’s in the same vein as Daft Punk or Deadmau5 where the singer or performer is concealed, so all the focus is on the music itself. The contrast between the soft, even cuddly name and the aggressive costuming is intentional; the group started out as a punk and metal band and wanted to stand out from others on the scene.
“Cobrastyle” was covered by fellow Swede Robyn, who deserves a Throwback Thursday all to herself. I listened to her version briefly, but it just doesn’t hit the same way as the Teddybears original: it’s a bit too clean. Part of the appeal of “Cobrastyle” is that it’s rough-edged. The song isn’t muffled, but Mad Cobra’s verses blend into the drum machine, which is at a lower register than most Scandinavian pop songs.
This was quite the vintage month for me. The only recent song I listened to was “Your Power” by Billie Eilish. (Visit my post about the song here.) Everything else was from the ’80s or earlier. I don’t know if that was influenced by the book I was reading about MTV, but both “Voices Carry” and “Karma Chameleon” were featured there, too. The last two songs on this playlist, “Under the Boardwalk” and “Summer Nights” are both part of my yearly trend of listening to summery songs just as the weather starts to turn.
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Well, here we are: I finally finished this 572-page book. (Not counting the index.) The music video era has truly ended, brought on by grunge and The Real World. Of course, Nirvana did make music videos, but they were intentionally subversive. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” featured all the outcasts of high school, everyone that wouldn’t normally be in a music video. Music videos in general had just become more about art and less about big hair and other excesses.
Despite the shifting profile of the channel, an executive described 1990-1992 as another “golden era” of MTV. A reason for this is that MTV demonstrated its influence in the world beyond music. When they covered the 1990 election, it engaged a demographic that historically hadn’t been inclined to vote.
The artists, staff, and viewers of MTV have conflicting feelings about what happened to the channel after it became less about music. The final chapter is titled “You Have No Idea How I Miss It.” They acknowledge MTV for what it was when it started: a cultural revolution that brought people together, created and/or broke careers, and shaped a generation. That’s the version of MTV that they miss. And indeed, that’s the nature of nostalgia. We focus on the parts that we like and were meaningful to us.
Overall I’d give the book a 3.5 out of 5. I Want My MTV is great for behind-the-scenes stories and it’s amazing how many famous voices they were able to gather. That said, I think the book could be about 20% shorter. (For example, the chapter about that was exclusively about drugs didn’t feel necessary; I got the point from the other anecdotes.) As I said in a previous review, it got a bit repetitive.
This week we’re going back to one of Adele’s biggest hits. It perfectly walks the line between the blue-eyed soul that Adele became famous for, with a blend of refined pop sensibilities that ensured it would stay on the radio for months. The song is buoyed by delicate, almost acoustic guitar that allows Adele’s voice to really take the stage as the melody opens.
Then the drums kick in. They sound a lot like the drums from “Dog Days Are Over” by Florence Welch; they’re just as loud, but in this case a bit more ominous. Which is fitting, since “Rolling in the Deep” is basically the story of the narrator plotting to ruin their ex: “You’re going to wish you/never had met me…you’ll reap just what you sow.”
I also want to talk about the fantastic remix of this song that came out a few months later. It was a rework from Jamie xx and the then-unknown rapper Childish Gambino. Jamie xx replaces the original’s guitar with hand clapping. The drums are quieter now and more of a solid heartbeat. I love the echoing, knocking beat that prefaces the chorus. I think that the way he distorts Adele’s voice into a dragged out, masculine sound was actually pretty advanced for its time. That vocal effect would soon be all over club hits. The song continues fairly normally for a remix, and then – SWAG, Childish Gambino starts rapping. And surprisingly enough, it totally works. On some of the verses he has vocal fry, which is rare for a male singer, especially a rapper; it’s a small detail that accentuates the desperation of some of his verses.
This segment covers chapters 34-46. The ’80s are now drawing to a close, along with MTV’s first decade. I liked this section of the book because it’s the more obscure part of MTV’s history. 1984 has passed and the “big” acts that kicked off the channel have either been left to obscurity, or have gone mainstream enough that they’re no longer as splashy.
Now MTV is starting to look more like the channel that I grew up with. They’re branching out from music, with the Remote Control game show and Cindy Crawford’s House of Style. MTV also started airing 120 Minutes, which was the kind of programming I would have watched had I been around during that era. It was the home of the emerging “alternative” genre. They played The Replacements, Nirvana, R.E.M., The Cure, and others that wouldn’t have been as popular during regular hours. (120 Minutes was tucked away in a Saturday slot.)
But the channel was changing in other ways, too. There were new VJs that were crasser, louder, and less interested in the music itself. MTV invested in turning these VJs into celebrities in a way they hadn’t with the previous crop. Meanwhile, Club MTV was yet another excuse to showcase beautiful girls dancing. The camera tended to…linger. From there, it wasn’t much of a leap from the channel’s “coverage” of Spring Break, which was the channel’s attempt to garner ad space from alcohol companies. You can see how that’s a precursor to the kind of reality shows MTV airs now: people partying hard and hooking up in a variety of settings.
On a more serious note, Yo! MTV Raps was a non-music video program that was particularly influential. It launched Will Smith’s career as the Fresh Prince, which, as DJ Jazzy Jeff comments, “introduced a lot of white kids to hip-hop.” The show really did integrate MTV, and cemented the channel’s longevity as a result – for better or worse.
Up next: the end of the book and my closing thoughts.
Despite my propensity for angst, I was never an emo kid in high school. “Teenagers” is the only song by My Chemical Romance I ever listened to. I have such vivid memories of playing the song really loudly when I hung out with my friends after school. We thought we were so cool and edgy because the lyrics say “shit” a lot. (Yes, I was/am a dork. Let’s move on.)
The song was produced by Rob Cavallo, who also worked with the Goo Goo Dolls and Green Day. “Teenagers” definitely has the feel of that era in pop punk: staticy guitar and heavy drums. There’s a long guitar solo before the final chorus kicks in. The chorus itself explodes with noise. Gerard Way’s voice also has an accent that’s common to the genre. It’s rounded and dismissive, which is fitting for the aggressiveness of MCR’s aesthetic. (This article goes into more detail about the “pop punk accent”; long but worth a read.)
The lyrics are definitely controversial, especially with their references to violence, but I think that’s another common aspect of pop punk: it’s intentionally provocative. I have a different relationship to the lyrics now than I did when I was a teenager. I listen to them with a kind of fondness for who I was back then and how much more dramatic everything seemed. Still, I’m grateful that I’m not a teenager anymore.
Welcome back to my series reviewing the book I Want My MTV! This review covers chapters 21-33. We’re about halfway through the book at this point. Speaking of “we’re halfway there”: Bon Jovi makes an appearance in this section. There’s a chapter about hair metal and how, despite its often cheesy aesthetic, it raked in the cash and cemented a genre.
Here’s where MTV really starts to take a turn: they’re going corporate. Their influence is becoming even more wide-reaching. And it’s here that one-hit wonders start getting made. You either have the image or you don’t, and MTV is the channel that decides that fate. This was something I had never thought about before, or at least not to this level of detail, so I enjoyed that perspective.
One of the ways MTV exerted its influence was through the Video Music Awards, which were first created in 1984. (One thing that I started wondering as I read this section was, “why don’t they call it the Music Video Awards since that’s what the channel is all about?”) Superstars like Madonna and industry movers and shakers from behind the scenes got the best seats. Of course, there was also some money and backdoor deals that went into it.
This section of the book also goes into detail about the substances that fueled MTV and the videos themselves back then. It’s at this point that I started to not like the book anymore because of how repetitive it’s becoming. I’m not enjoying the endless stories about parties. There’s an entire chapter all about it, in addition to perhaps 80% of the rest of the anecdotes in the book.
What shook up this section is the chapter on the rise of Run-DMC. Rap was everywhere…except on MTV. Run-DMC and their remix of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” changed that. It made rap accessible to wide (i.e. white) audiences. I love stories about new trends in music and their origins. This is one of the ur-examples.
Up next is the gradual transformation of the channel into the reality show clearing house it is today.
Admittedly, I hadn’t listened to this song in years before I sat down to do this week’s Throwback Thursday. But it hasn’t aged at all: that familiar, heavy piano, that slightly husky voice, those incredibly catchy lyrics. It’s time to revisit an anti-love song that was everywhere back in the day.
The great thing about this tune is that it inverts the genre. Despite the cheerful beat and its echoes of swing, Bareilles is singing about the tension of a relationship that she doesn’t want to memorialize. The song was actually directed at her label and how they were trying to get her to write a love song when she didn’t want to. (When I was a teenager, I thought that was just an urban legend.)
The lyrics themselves are delightfully passive-aggressive: “the breathing gets harder, even I know that.” She’s taking the excuses of the other person in the relationship and reframing them. And over the course of the song, the narrator seems to grow more confident. She acknowledges that they “convinced me to please you” and “made me think that I need this too.” Finally, at the end, she seems to have the strength to walk away.